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September 12, 2017

An Actor’s Evolution

Julia Stiles has come a long way from playing a teenage shrew.

Hillary Atkin
  • Sundance
  • Sundance
  • Sundance

The four Bourne films she’s starred in alongside Matt Damon have taken Julia Stiles around the world, but she is now firmly ensconced in the breathtaking land and seascapes of the South of France for her newest on-screen thriller.

In Riviera, Stiles portrays an accomplished art dealer operating at the loftiest levels of a business known for subterfuge and double-dealing. But she suddenly finds herself intertwined with seamier, criminal elements when her high-flying husband is unexpectedly killed in a suspicious yacht explosion while she’s in New York buying multi-million dollar artworks for him at auction.

Stiles’s character, Georgina Clios, is left tangling with his shady business dealings and manipulative family members including his ex-wife, played by Lena Olin, and their three grown children, each operating with their own often-hidden agendas.

The role is a world away from the cranky, antisocial teenager she played in the iconic coming-of-age film 10 Things I Hate About You, a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in which she was, in essence, the shrew. It thrust her-- and costars Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – to stardom in 1999.

Stiles has had a busy summer promoting Riviera—it premiered on Sky Atlantic in Europe in June-- even as she’s expecting her first child with fiancé Preston J. Cook. We spoke with her by phone from Vancouver.

What initially attracted you to Riviera, in addition to the magnificent settings?

Neil Jordan described his inspiration as “beyond every fortune is a great crime” and I felt that was going to pique my interest. The setting was really interesting – the beauty and glamor and romanticism contrasting with what was going on with the characters.

Aside from the crime drama, I thought it was interesting to play the fish out of water, an American in Europe. Her husband Constantine was the only person there that she loved and trusted, only to discover after his death that he’s been lying. We explore what happens when everything is taken away and the person you loved was deceiving you on a very deep level.

Tell us about the character of Georgina and how she evolves throughout the 10 episodes.

I asked the producers early on about wanting wanted to make sure she wasn’t a guileless American and they promised me she would surprise us and become somewhat ruthless. In her surroundings, because of the situation, she has to do questionable things. She goes from being very trusting to very cunning.

It’s a fun transition. Often on TV it’s either/or. The characters start out one way and you don’t see the slippery slope and see them becoming manipulative or bad. Also, despite that, I hope the audience is still rooting for her to triumph.

Do you feel that women are held to a different standard than men when it comes to displaying such qualities?

There were discussions of how the character would be perceived. The most interesting characters are ones you call into question. It’s fun to play an antihero, and we need to see her progress. There are characteristics we find more distasteful in females. It’s much easier to root for a male character than a female. I don’t know why that is.

There are scenes toward the end with Georgina lashing out at a child. We expect women to have a nurturing instinct. There are certain circumstances when we expect more from female characters. An old tradition in storytelling is whether a woman is good, bad, bloody or virtuous, innocent or cunning, going back to Shakespeare. But it’s changing, slowly.

You share so many scenes with Lena Olin. Do you consider her character an ally or an adversary?

Lena is one of my favorites. Their relationship changes, obviously because of the shared husband and jockeying for position. Instead of focusing on the rivalry, we get to explore when they have same agenda and are allies. At the core is mutual respect. They each appreciate the other’s success, but they both can be territorial.

Working with Iwan Rheon - are you a Game of Thrones fan and did he bring anything from being the murderous Ramsay Bolton that scared you in Riviera?

I had heard so much about his character on Game of Thrones and didn’t want it to bleed over. He appreciated that I was approaching him with fresh eyes. I never got into the show, and didn’t want it to influence our interactions. But now with Season 7 ending, I really feel far behind.

With your experience directing and writing the web-based drama Paloma, how has that influenced your work as an actor?

It’s freed me up as an actress. You get to see how much you can do from that moment on - as long as I prep my director, I can offer a lot more variety and be a lot less controlling during takes. It really helped.

On Riviera, I was changing lines all the time. I come from a theater background, and with playwrights like David Mamet, you don’t change things. It allowed me to not be precious when scenes are not working and to be able to offer up alternatives lines or ending to scenes.

I also experienced how frustrating it is as a writer to see your work changed, sometimes because an actor is insecure. I am respectful in that if I’m asking to change lines, it’s not because I can’t remember them, but more because it could be better.  

What were your experiences like working on Dexter and The Mindy Project?

It definitely opened my eyes to doing more TV. Dexter was already established. In some ways it’s dangerous to be there as a guest, but I was happy with what they wrote for me, and it was fun to invest in a character and explore layers throughout episodes as opposed to an hour and half long movie.

With The Mindy Project, that was just because I was a fan. I enjoyed going to work and being able to improvise and say, “Check this out.”

You hosted SNL in 2001. Have you ever thought about doing it again, and what character could you play on the show now?

SNL would be an absolute dream to host again. Especially now with so much material, it would be great. The Ivanka Trump “Complicit” perfume ad spoof was spot on. If they’re open to other people, I could play the wife of Steven Mnuchin.

Thank god they have the summer edition of SNL, and late-night hosts Seth Myers and Stephen Colbert-- it’s medicine right now in the current political climate. With boldly tackling politics, I struggle with shutting up - and on the other hand, sometimes you can’t help it. You feel like, “Is anybody else witnessing this insanity?” and that’s a little more comforting.

With the Bourne films, you’re the only actor aside from Matt Damon who’s been in all four of them.

I had no idea when we made the first one I would be in four. The character survived, and four movies later, is one of the most interesting. I’m really proud to be part of such a cool Hollywood action movie franchise. It’s taken me to amazing parts of the world.

When Paul Greengrass told me what was going to happen to my character, he was worried. I thought it was a nice ending and it was time, as anyone who gets close to Jason Bourne ends up dead. Bourne has literally been part of my whole adult life, as I was 19, a sophomore in college, when I did the first one. The last one, I was 34.

Between The Bourne Ultimatum and the last one was 8 years. You’re in a different positon in your own life and that informs your work. It’s pretty rare that you revisit a character. I don’t think anyone could have predicted this.

Bourne, with the style and look of it set by Doug Liman - was unprecedented with the hand-held cameras on narrow streets in Paris. It was not conventional. Matt Damon wasn’t a big box office star. It was really groundbreaking, and the studio was taking a risk. 

Gabrielle Union recently posted a throwback picture of you and Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Andrew Keegan, and Larisa Oleynik from 10 Things I Hate About You. How does it make you feel looking back on it and especially your work with Heath?

I have such fond memories of that film, especially since it was my first big break, and I was so excited and open-minded. Working with Heath was incredible and obviously what happened to him was a huge tragedy. Thinking back, it’s a touching feeling like you would get when looking at an old photo album from high school. The kind of enthusiasm we had – if we could recreate that, we would all be less cynical.

You recently posted a baby bump selfie on Instagram and received a huge response.

I actually had a little bit of conflicted feelings about it as it’s quite personal. And then there’s the whole baby bump obsession…but fuck it, I’m really happy and excited.

Riviera premieres September 14 on Sundance Now.

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